First cracks in anti-Iraq alliance

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The Independent Online
A RIFT between Robin Cook and the Foreign Office over Iraq yesterday exposed deep problems between Britain and the United States over the authority for air strikes.

Mr Cook told the Commons that military action would require United Nations approval. But that clashed directly with the line from Washington, Downing Street and even his own department - all of which were more gung-ho.

Because Saddam Hussein is already in breach of the UN Gulf War ceasefire resolution, requiring the dismantling of his weapons of mass destruction, the Washington view is that no further UN blessing is needed for military strikes.

Opening the first Commons debate on the crisis, Mr Cook told Tony Benn - a leading Labour opponent of military action - that it would be "prudent" to get a further UN resolution. The Foreign Secretary then told Michael Colvin, a Conservative MP, that existing UN resolutions "give rise to a logical interpretation" that force was already authorised.

"Having said that," Mr Cook added, "our own view is very strong, that there should be a further Security Council resolution to demonstrate to Saddam and to the rest of the world that any action that is taken by the United States and the United Kingdom is action that has the support of an international consensus." While the Foreign Secretary was saying a resolution of the UN Security Council was required - a legal view backed by Lord Mayhew, Tory Attorney- General during the 1991 conflict, in a parallel Lords debate - an official Foreign Office spokesman told The Independent yesterday that a resolution would be "desirable". He repeatedly refused to take the opportunity to back the Foreign Secretary's line - saying he would not "unsay" what Mr Cook had told the House.

The Independent has been told by a senior government source that while Mr Cook wants President Saddam to back down, and he recognises the value of a military reinforcement for diplomatic negotiation, he is more reluctant than his own department, the Prime Minister and President Clinton to resort to air strikes - which are most unlikely to win Security Council backing.

Agreeing that there was a difference between Mr Cook's position and the view from Washington, the Prime Minister's spokesman said yesterday that while Britain stood "shoulder-to-shoulder with the United States ... there is a difference of interpretation, possibly."

In his Commons speech, Mr Cook also warned that in the remote event of an Iraqi chemical or biological attack on Britain, "there would be a proportionate response". However, he told MPs only last week that there was no question of a nuclear strike against Iraq.

The Government faced repeated protests from the Labour benches during last night's debate. Fourteen Labour MPs put their names to an amendment calling for sanctions to be lifted and for no military action without Security Council support.

The Labour rebels were led by Mr Benn, a former Cabinet Minister, and Tam Dalyell, MP for Linlithgow. Mr Benn said the Government was asking MPs to share responsibility for action which it knew would be taken without the authority of the UN Security Council.

He told Mr Cook that the Russians and Chinese would not vote for the use of force. "So why involve the House of Commons in an act that would run contrary to what the Security Council would do?"

It was now inevitable that there would be another war in the Gulf, he added. "That huge fleet is not in the Gulf waiting to be withdrawn when Saddam gives a friendly noise to Kofi Annan [the UN Secretary-General] .... "

Backing the Government in a rare Commons intervention, John Major, who was Prime Minister at the time of the Gulf War, asked: "What would this House say to itself and say to history if we knew that now we had an opportunity to take action and we chose not to? I don't suggest this is an easy option. The Government have no easy option here, and they deserve our support for the decisions they have to take."

Question of War, page 12